HARRISON, N.J. – New York's remarkable worst-to-first turnaround from a season ago continued as a 2-0 win over New England last Thursday saw them finish first in the Eastern Conference for just the second time in franchise history.
Pundits and fans alike have conceded that last year’s Red Bulls side, which won just five games and finished bottom of the league table, wasn’t as bad as their record indicated. After all, they had some legitimate talent in their starting XI, including Juan Pablo Angel and Macoumba Kandji, as well as a sprinkling of quality MLS veterans in Seth Stammler, Mike Petke, Dane Richards and Bouna Coundoul.
It wasn’t beyond the stretch of the imagination to think New York could do well this year, given their two first-round SuperDraft picks, plenty of cap space and two open Designated Player slots thanks to the league's expanded rules.
Yet no one thought this New York side had the talent — let alone the moxie — to finish first in its conference. But as the great philosopher Mike Petke once said, “You knew at the beginning of the season that there was the potential for something here.”
The truth of the matter is that the Red Bulls are just beginning to reach what their expectation level should be.
After all, this is a starting XI that boasts Thierry Henry and Rafa Márquez — players who could start on nearly any team in the world. Throw in Ángel, arguably the most prolific striker in MLS history, and additions such as Richards, Estonian captain Joel Lindpere, Costa Rican international Roy Miller, former US right back Chris Albright and the emerging talent of Tim Ream and Tony Tchani, and suddenly this is a club that should be expect the conference regular-season title as a minimum.
[inline_node:321453]However, Ángel remains cautious as the club heads into the postseason.
“We have to correct the things that we need to correct, and because of the formula of the league, anything can happen,” Ángel said. “We have to be our best from the beginning, because we don’t want to miss out on this great opportunity.”
The irony of the “anything can happen” sentiment is that the formula is exactly what carried the Red Bulls, who finished in the eighth and final playoff spot in 2008, through the postseason and into their first-ever MLS Cup final.
With several players remaining from that remarkable run on the roster, including Ángel, New York understand they need to come out and execute in the playoffs or else this year's excellent turnaround will become just a footnote in the season’s annals.
“We couldn’t do worse than last year,” Richards said. “We just came in and worked hard, and we did it. It’s not over yet, with the playoffs. Hopefully we have three more games left and we can go all the way with it.”
But even with a battle-tested mind set, Richards couldn’t help but reflect on what a difference a year makes in the New York locker room. The Red Bulls took a celebratory lap around the field last year after throttling Toronto FC to close out the season. It was as if that win washed out the bad taste of a bad season for the Red Bulls, allowing them a fresh start this year.
“Last year we were thanking the fans, and we were going to go home,” Richards said. “This year, we’re thanking the fans to come and support us in the playoffs. So that’s a great feeling.”
Kristian R. Dyer can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com and followed at twitter.com/kdyer1012
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